Stress: Friend or Foe?
Stress isn’t bad.
Wait what? You may have heard from all of the news sources, your doctor, your friends… well everyone, that stress is bad. But, it’s not that simple.
We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for stress. We evolved over millions of years facing hostile, stressful environments. It was our ability to adapt to those stressors that made us who we are today. So let’s shed a little bit of light on what stress is, the different types of stress, and how to make stress your friend.
What is stress?
Stress is simply our response to stimulus or pressure. It comes in many forms (physical, mental, emotional) and can be from an internal (physiological) or external (environmental) source. Stress, in its essence, is a response from the body to prepare for a challenge. This is why the stress response can be triggered by so many different things (exercise, work deadlines, lack of food, an argument, public speaking, etc.). Each of us has a certain threshold for stress. Below this threshold, we are able to respond and adapt. Above this threshold, things begin to go south.
Good and Bad Stress
The so-called ‘founder of stress’ Hans Selye coined the terms distress (negative) and eustress (positive) to distinguish the different forms of stress. Eustress is considered positive and motivates us, energises us and enhances function while distress is considered negative and overwhelming that often impairs function. Remember, stress is simply a response. When we go to the gym, we create a stimulus on the body, this is stressful. But as it is within our coping abilities, it is considered eustress. Whereas when our boss dumps another project on our already overflowing plate, which feels outside our coping abilities, we feel distress. In addition to how we feel about the stressor, also important is the duration.
Short term stress is good, it prepares us for the challenge. Long term stress is bad, it drains our resources. See, the stress response is designed to be short lived. Something in the environment occurs, the brain triggers the stress response, we deal with the event, and once passed the body returns to its normal state. However when the stressor doesn’t go away, the body is continually bombarded with stress hormones, disrupting many functions in the body.
What to do?
The best thing we can do to manage stress, is befriend it! We need to use stress to our advantage, and also have effective strategies when stress is going on for too long.
By seeking stress out and consciously engaging in it, we are in the driver's seat.
Temperature: Getting our body hot and cold is a great way to trigger the short term, positive form of stress. There is enormous amounts of data on the benefits of sauna (dry and infrared), and it’s role in triggering a positive stress response. Just as useful is getting cold. Whether it’s a cold shower, an ice bath or sitting in a body of water, when we drop our body temperature we trigger immense positive benefits to the cardiovascular system and endocrine system.
Exercise: Engaging in physical exercise is a simple and effective way to allow the body to ‘discharge’ some of the stress. Remember, the stress response is preparing the body for a challenge, so when we provide the body with a challenge (exercise) it is allowing the process to be completed.
Nature: Immersing ourselves in nature has been shown to reduce the presence of stress hormones in the body. When the pace of life is getting too much, simply taking time to be amongst nature helps our body reset to its natural baseline. Researchers from Harvard have shown that just 20 minutes in nature was enough to reduce cortisol levels in the body.
Breathwork: Manipulating our breath can create a short term physiological stress in the body. By altering levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide we create a stimulus that the body then has to respond to. Practices like superventialion, breath holding, slow cadence breathing are all great ways to create short term stress.
Social Connection: Don’t forget, humans are social creatures. We thrive on being connected to friends, family, and community. Social connection is a true antidote to stress. So call a friend, tell stories, laugh, engage in meaningful conversation.
Bonus points if you can combine all of the above! How about taking a walk or a jog through nature (park or forest) with a friend! And if there is some cold water, jump in!
So remember, not all stress is bad! More important than the stressor itself, is how you feel about it. Is it within my coping abilities? Am I engaging in the challenge? Do I feel supported? And remember, the duration of stress is a big factor … Short = good! Long = bad. Try to seek out some discomfort here and there, let your body respond to environmental stressors and adapt in a positive way.
If you need guidance with seeking out good forms of stress, reach out! I love to change people's view on stress. Stress is not your enemy, it is your friend.
If you don’t manage stress, it will manage you.